Five Steps for Interesting Characters
January 25, 2018
Currently I’m in the process of editing my WIP, Corvus. When I talk to other writers about our insecurities with our manuscripts, I often hear about characters. Everyone worries about whether they have interesting characters that feel real, dynamic and keep the pages turning. Characters are something I constantly think about. I spend a long time designing characters that fit into my world and feel real and unique.
But what is an interesting character? Is it enough that your leading male is a bloodthirsty king set on expanding his empire and keeping his family in line? He sounds interesting, right? Potentially. But having a character with unique motives doesn’t guarantee an interesting character. For that, you’ll need to give them life.
Create Dynamic Personalities
Quick! Answer this: What three words best describes your character? If you used the words nice, mean, funny, evil, or good, you probably don’t know your character as well as you should. In fact, have you ever played this game as a team-building exercise? And has someone ever described you as funny and nice before? Yeah, me too. I may just be, but it’s a generalization.
Your characters should be just as dynamic as you are. Are they nice? Maybe they are, but that doesn’t mean they’re nice to everyone. Maybe a better word is loyal. Does your character have conflicting character traits? Perhaps your leading lady wants to be friends with everyone but can’t accept people who are different than her. Not only do these traits spur story conflict, but they’re ultra-realistic.
Give them a Unique Appearance
If you’ve ever read a character that you just can’t picture, you know how hard it is to hear their side of the conversation. Characters with unique appearances are easier for readers to visualize. In addition, unique appearances say something about your characters. Creating an appearance that not only gives hints at their past but also their personality can be a powerful tool for exposition. For example, a character with a scar might open up readers to question what event caused this.
Not all of your characters have to have interesting appearances, but highlighting a few with interesting hairstyles, eye colors, styles, or physical features can add some necessary diversity and depth to your world. Even a character who has a penchant for a unique type of shoe, or always wears the same shirt because she likes it or it’s convenient goes a long way in terms of characterization and memorability.
Give them Something to Care About
This might sound obvious, but creating situations that worry your character or show just how much they care makes them real and creates character development. I will never stop talking about the book When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka. This book has never left me. It’s about a Japanese family and their separation from their father/husband while being forced into an American internment camp during World War II.
While the characters are never given names, their personalities are obvious from the opening scene. In this first chapter, the mother is forced by situation to buy supplies with which to kill the family dog. She knows she can’t take it with them, nor will her neighbors (who have ostracized her and her family) take it. Her heartbreak is obvious, but this small moment builds a tremendous amount of character that a name couldn’t accomplish.
They Need a Hobby
All too often in fiction, I see characters who fit into the plot perfectly…almost like they were made for it! Now I know a lot of us plot by coming up with the story first, then finding the hero. But the trick to making them real is to make them seem like they’re a bit of a wonky puzzle piece that doesn’t fit perfectly. Even if they do.
Maybe your hero is a collector of stamps and is very protective of their collection. Maybe your character is an avid baker, and their baking abilities–or lack thereof–end up helping them during a plot point. Give your protagonists and side characters believable hobbies and interests outside of the plot. While your characters might not have time to get back into photography or leaf-pressing during your book, having skills and interests is something that identifies us, makes us vulnerable, and makes us valuable when the timing is right.
Everyone Needs Voice
Writers exercise voice by using different sentence structure, cadence, and word-choice in dialogue. It’s a tricky thing to do and to get right, but with practice, feedback and lots and lots of reworking, it can be done. One of the things I mention here is word choice, and I really want to stress that. How characters use words, whether it’s properly, improperly, slang, or big words says a lot about a character and their situation. A man who speaks properly is assumed to be well-educated and impeccable about the way he presents himself, while one who uses big words might come off as pretentious or insecure.
Characters might also favor a word or expression. Not so much that it’s a catch phrase, but as people, we often find ourselves saying the same word because we really like it. A good example is someone who constantly says “Geez!” or “Oh my gosh.” You can also research some speak of the time to find an expression or interjection that may suit your character as well as give the setting life. There’s a way to tick off two boxes at once!
In historical fiction, it may be tempting to devote all of your time to building the setting and world, but your characters are who your audience will emotionally connect with. Without interesting characters, your book may drag and feel lifeless. Try fleshing out your characters by filling out their lives and emotions. Your character should be just as complex as you are!